Can computer games and activities improve cognitive abilities?
I was giving a workshop on “Knowing your Bladder” and we were talking about Kegel exercises and one of the women in the room, said, “Use it or lose it.” I agree and this advice can apply to many situations but is often used to stress the importance of keeping our bodies and minds active in order to stay healthy, independent and mentally fit for as long as possible.
Research evidence supports this old adage “Use it or Lose it” and there are plenty of good options for staying physically active, but one of the questions I get when I give my seminars is, how can we best exercise our brains? Well, there is one option for a cognitive “work out” and it is computerized cognitive training (CCT). There are various types of computer programs designed to strengthen overall cognition and improve memory, attention span and learning. With many options now available online, CCT is showing promise in helping to prevent cognitive decline.
For many seniors, Computerized cognitive training (CCT) is an enjoyable, easy and relatively inexpensive way to stay mentally fit. CCT contributes to short-term cognitive improvements in people with mild cognitive impairment. Small improvements were also seen in people with dementia.
More research is needed to find out the longer-term benefits of CCT, to see if it helps prevent people with mild cognitive impairment from developing dementia.
That question led researchers to investigate whether CCT could benefit those who have already experienced cognitive decline. So some research was done to include people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) who have noticeable problems with thinking, memory, language and decision making but are still able to function independently, and people with dementia whose cognitive impairments interfere with daily activities.
People in the research participated in supervised computerized cognitive skills training, video games or virtual reality activities for at least four hours in total, after which their cognitive abilities were measured and compared to control groups who didn’t take part in CCT or did different types of training.
What the research tells us
Cognitive “brain games” may be screen time well spent! People with MCI experienced moderate improvement in their overall cognitive abilities after taking part in computerized cognitive training sessions, specifically in areas such as memory, attention, verbal and non-verbal learning, and psychosocial functioning. For people with dementia, the evidence was less encouraging but some minor improvements were noted.
Cognition tests were taken immediately after the completion of training, so the results don’t tell us much about the longer-term impacts of CCT. More research is needed to address those and other questions, including whether CCT can help prevent the progression of mild cognitive impairment to full dementia.
Although these results are promising, computer “brain games” should not be considered a one-step solution to keep our brains healthy and sharp. Research evidence shows that people with cognitive impairment, and their caregivers, benefit most when support programs have multiple components, including physical exercise and social interaction (5), and most of us can benefit from less sedentary screen time!
However, this research suggests that computer-based cognitive training can be considered one promising addition to treatment for people with cognitive impairment.